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Outrage: ‘There is a silent agreement in contemporary British architecture: you may deploy ornament, but never too much’

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Tasteful restraint is pandering to planners and the public

There is a silent agreement in contemporary British architecture, a pact that underpins the marching brick and tile-infill estates of New London Vernacular blocks, as well as the subtly contextual and ever-so-slightly decorated buildings vaunted as the vanguard of the current zeitgeist. It states that you may use historicist elements, you may deploy ornament, you may present applied panels and materials as if they were structural, and you may recall forms from any number of past architectural styles in your work. You may do these things, in fact you are actively encouraged to do so, but with one all-important proviso. Not too much. Never too much. Do not give the game away.

It is the architectural equivalent of that paradoxical exhortation that make-up must look so natural as to be unseen, at which point everyone exclaims ‘how natural, how classy!’ Architects now unwittingly seek the ambiguous accolade of being viewed as truthful, as authentic, precisely because their deceptiveness is so complete as to be entirely invisible.

With the now universally used justifications for design intent in Britain being contextually based (the rest of the street is brick so we used brick; there was a pottery factory here so we used glazed tiles; there was once industry here so we stuck saw-tooth roofs on top), there is a precarious balancing act that must be perpetuated for architecture to maintain itself as serious in its own eyes.

‘One can include ornament, but circumscribed and limited to an appropriate scale. One can imply gables, but not actually have gables’

On the one hand, it must dress itself up as fitting, referential, friendly, for that is what current planning dogma and the public expect (and architects also secretly kind of like this). On the other hand, it must never be seen to be enjoying itself too much, or pandering to alternative tastes seen by the profession as vulgar. Architects spent much of the second half of the 20th century decrying the horrors of pastiche, the vile corrupted appeal to sentimentality of Disneyland, and the sickly cute cosiness of Poundbury, Seaside and Celebration.

It now finds itself relentlessly – ubiquitously – deploying many of the same tactics as these much-despised paragons of artificiality. It appeals to sentimentality, to a superficial understanding of local and regional histories, it simulates community, it is all about the construction of an outward appearance, a mask of applied reality. And so, more than ever, it must carefully calibrate each and every one of its tectonic tools to ensure that it differentiates itself from the great bogeyman of pastiche.

It does this through meticulously tasteful restraint. One can use arches, but abstracted. One can include ornament, but circumscribed and limited to an appropriate scale. One can imply gables, but not actually have gables. One can create a whimsically picturesque silhouette, but it is of course derived from the ‘genii loci’ of the site, and is therefore beyond reproach. It is ‘straight acting’ architecture. It is fundamentally as promiscuous and capricious as the most wilful of past architectures, with the only difference being one of degree. It rigorously hides its caprices in plain sight, by paring everything back, just enough. It is dissolute but has erased the fun.

Outrage small

Outrage small

Source: Thomas Ryder


And like the stereotype of the straight-acting closeted homosexual who – to protect his own secrets – lashes out and condemns those who confidently share their true activities with the wider world, it is imperative that those who openly embrace and enjoy and even celebrate the applied nature of contemporary architecture must be condemned, lest their activities implicate, and out, the whole profession.

The mix of disdain and mockery that greeted so much of FAT’s work, most notably A House for Essex, as well as the inability of so many to come to terms with the recent listing of Stirling & Wilford’s No 1 Poultry, are just specific examples of this. There is a palpable fear of those who bring veracity to the great lie that architecture is a thing of purity and truth, and a horror of those who illustrate with panache that restraint and subtraction are not in any way the same as seriousness, intelligence or honesty.

Nostalgia is the ever-present shadow of modernity, it blankets change in the warm glow of comforting imaginary pasts, an easy antidote for those unable to contend with the impact of a bewildering present. Our hyper-mediated, complicated, rich and confusing digital age is saturated with a veneration of authenticity – and anything that can present itself as authentic and unmediated – a contemporary nostalgia as powerful, and escapist, as that of the 19th century’s yearning for the pastoral.

‘Our hyper-mediated, complicated, rich and confusing digital age is saturated with a veneration of authenticity’

Architecture shares in this yearning, and applies its nostalgia generously to the face of its buildings as a thin illusion of old-fashioned substance, the deceptive aura of an earlier, more certain era that never really existed, in which architecture knew what it was, when buildings were as truthful as a bottle of Ronseal: what you see is what you get. It is a form of communal self-deception, and is about as sophisticated, unique and valuable as the fanatical loyalty of customers who believe that their local coffee shop is honesty and virtue incarnate because of its artfully distressed, brand-new interior.

If the mask of an applied reality is precisely the state of almost all architecture now – whether it yearns for a lost innocence in the garden of architectural modernism, oh-so-timidly allows itself the delicate shoots of allusion and ornament, or politely hints at historical forms – it should be embraced, instead of trying so very hard, all the time, to hide it and dress it up as its opposite. It is no bad thing, it is in fact a great thing. 

After a life of hiding in plain sight, George Michael was outed by a hostile media in 1998. Rather than go into deeper hiding, or be penitent, he released the triumphant ‘Outside’, in which he took ownership over, and celebrated, the very thing that he had previously been so afraid of revealing, and yet which somehow everyone already knew.

It liberated him. Architecture has no need to be ashamed. It should come out, own its current disposition, let go, and do spectacular, uncouth and novel things with the freedoms that would result.

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Lead Image: Barrett’s Grove, Stoke Newington, London by Amin Taha Architects. Photograph by Tim Soar